A Study of Modern Love, Part 1

If you are a deity of any sort, then please don’t go. –Regina Spektor, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”

It’s not that I’m trying to be picky, it’s just that I’m really only looking for a goddess.

To be clear: I will not worship an Aphrodite. She’s a one-trick pony with a callous ignorance of her own power no matter how eye-meltingly attractive she looks astride a surfboard. And while I adore the a Diana that I’m friends with, we are just friends — her thing is not my thing, her path is not my path. My thing is more to do with a Kalypso I met in Tamarindo or an Eris I met in Sydney a few years ago. Though perhaps not an Eris: it’s a very difficult transition for me to suddenly go from being confident and centered to being very, very small in her sublime aura.

You may rightly wonder why I’m referring to goddesses at this juncture; it is for psychological reasons rather than religious ones.

I should probably back up a bit. I was reading Kate Crawford’s book Adult Themes — I enjoyed it — and the thought occurred to me: has the chronic destabilization of our careers diminished the value of loyalty and commitment in other relationships? Now the books I’m going to be getting to on this subject — Hochschild’s The Commercialization of Intimate Life and Ho’s Liquidated — weren’t immediately available from the library so I chained down a bit and ran across Adshade’s Dollars and Sex and Slater’s Love in the Time of Algorithms. So far, Adshade is making too many questionable assertions based on incomplete models (though her Chapter 7 is good) while Slater’s jumbled up too much formulaic history — he may as well be talking about the histories of Amazon and NewEgg — in a way that obscures the relevant information.

That said, Slater gets close to my original question in his Chapter 5:

“Historically,” says Greg Blatt, CEO of Match’s parent company, “relationships have been billed as ‘hard’ because, historically, commitment has been the goal. You could say online dating is simply changing people’s ideas about whether commitment itself is a life value.”

More precisely, Greg could say that. I would say that Greg’s choice of the word “commitment” — as in “should we have you committed?” — is a tactical one; if he had said “loyalty” then people who are concerned about their moral fiber would become a lot more concerned about Match.com and its ilk. Loyalty is, after all, the most common core of duty; duty is the core of deontological ethics, those being focused on who you immutably are (rather than the teleological ethics that focus on who you want to become). It is this same loyalty that is the “till death do you part” part of a successful marriage. Let me put that another way: to make “successful marriage” your goal, as Adshade mentions early in her book, is simply to have a goal of out-living your partner. Your partner might be worried about that perspective; better to live each day loyal to your partner than to set up some additional faux metrics, isn’t it?

No, says the man playing the end-game of capitalism: the market efficiencies (and both “market” and “efficient” show up throughout Slater’s book, often in the mouths of executives) that should be freeing people up to do something new and interesting and wonderful are more often just rushing past them because the power differential is in favor of the system: the apparently frictionless market is only frictionless for the people or corporations with power. Everybody else is still fighting friction and the world moves past them. Match.com flaunts a small but perverse irony here by constantly nagging users to commit to their service at a rate of about $20 per month for, ideally, 6 months (full payment up front). But I’m interested in larger impacts on civilization, so I’m looking to Detroit: when industry opted for disloyalty to its community, it was able to move elsewhere. But the people who had invested in loyalty — such as buying a house — found that the investment was an overwhelming source of friction for them and now Detroit is, well, Detroit. Thus we can hypothesize that the frequently-defended duty of capitalism to pursue efficient markets is not a duty in the deontological sense but rather a goal of efficient markets in the teleological sense quite in conflict with an actual sense of duty, in much the same way that having a goal of a successful marriage (we’ll get there tomorrow) counters being happily married (we are it today). This is all without going into the corruption critique noting that the services are most successfully pursuing their goal of distilling profit — direct or indirect — from an allegedly efficient market that accentuates their power while their customers are failing at finding that “someone special.”

And this should be worrisome for anybody who is familiar with Rebecca Saxe’s work in disrupting the RTPJ resulting in more consequentialist evaluations of behavior, because it looks an awful lot like the pursuit of the ideal of capitalism is going to drive people into an inhumane infantilism, which makes perfect sense — going back to Crawford — in a context of emerging adulthood and delayed marriage as a rational response to the ongoing socioeconomic turbulence our civilization has sunk itself in.

It should also be worrisome for any MBAs waiting for me to make a pun on “engaging with Match.com’s brand” because you know it’s got to be coming and there I just sucker-punched you with it.

I don’t like to be worried about the moral fiber of this species, so I set down Slater’s book and went and conjured up accounts on a couple of dating sites to see if what I’m reading is true. And I’m not sure about true, but the murkiness of the dating pool water is putting me off. To start with, Match.com’s interface is — in my professional opinion — cluttered and clunky and lacking in functionality that’s been around for years, their suggested matches are woefully ignorant, and their questionnaire boils down to clicking on blurry thumbnails of you-can’t-quite-tell-what to establish your (promptly ignored) preferred qualities in a future life partner or at least 2-hour stand, and all of that’s before running into functions that are non-functional either because they’re bugged or paywalled. By comparison, OkCupid is a technological masterpiece — it starts by supporting stronger passwords and ends by almost making sense except for a couple backwards bits of UX — and the questionnaire (which is single choice for you, multiple choice for what you’re compatible with, and an executive signing statement at the bottom) seems exhaustive… until you realize that it’s really just exhausting and far too luridly interested in prurient details that really would seem awkward if you were to say them out loud:

“Hey, what do you say we go out for drinks tomorrow night and afterwards I lick your anus?”
“Well so long as you don’t pass moral judgment on me for sleeping with 107 guys,* sounds like fun.”

Seriously, both of those statements relate to questions on the huge OkCupid survey. And it doesn’t take long to go from just looking for a good conversation over dinner to having totally lost your appetite as you try to figure out where these questions are coming from and, just as importantly, where they’re going. They might both simplify and clarify the process by putting “I’m interested in this:” checkboxen next to UrbanDictionary entries, but the point is simply that the interest in figuring out what kind of sex you’re going to have before they’ve got the slightest clue of who you’re going to have it with strikes me as odd. But I suppose it shouldn’t:

“And just look at these men: their eye saith it — they know nothing better on earth than to lie with a woman.” –Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathrustra

This concern extends to the less-obscenely biological aspects of the questionnaire as well: the more comprehensive the set of answers I provide and adhere to, the more likely I’d be to filter out — for example — that cute waitress who is getting flirty with me even when I’m not at one of her tables. Or the delightfully refined store manager down in the village that always seems to miss a heartbeat when our eyes meet. Indeed, I couldn’t properly recognize a Kalypso (incidentally also a mother) until we were in the ocean and in her element, so whatever would I make of a small blurry photo? The selfies and scan-trons are a catalog of animals made available by an efficient market, but my attraction is based “in form and moving… how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god[dess]!” Or, to put it another way: the strength of my spatial intuition makes getting my attention with just a number and a photo damned near impossible (even before we get into Paradox of Choice territory where I ignore everybody whose photo and number I can’t tell apart).

I’ve been ranting on for a bit here; let’s get some sage advice:


Now my bookshelf is increasingly on my Kindle and my playlist is mostly on my phone, but I think we could enhance the social aspect of dating very simply by harnessing the power of the Internet (imagine that) to let people more aggressively cross-reference. For example: What’s your favorite love song? Provide a link to it in iTunes. (For me, that’d be Lucia Cifarelli’s “Monkey Puzzle Tree”) What’s on your bookshelf? Drop in links to Amazon or maybe just your Kindle profile. If you add a supporting line for some other question — like answering a question on art with Dr. Jung’s maxim that “When a form of “art” is primarily personal it deserves to be treated as if it were a neurosis.” — you should be able to tag that source with the tags being searchable as part of your main profile. And we can apply this further: weighted tagging. If bicycling is super important to you, then tag yourself as a bicyclist and weight that tag strongly. Then a search can be “I’m only interested in people at least X interested in bicycling” or “I’m only interested in people less than X interested in bicycling.” Imagine: a search engine that would look for avid bicyclists who love Nietzsche but aren’t particularly tolerant of Joyce. Bonus points if we then turn around and algorithmically compare their favorite love song (or whatever) to your music collection — since all collections are online as part of a service these days anyway — to see if musical tastes might overlap. Next, add a bit of AI in to see if the answers make sense: there are enough questions available to make self-contradiction inevitable at the moment. Bonus points if the AI can detect a user’s style — like answering a question about haiku with haiku, or making a conditional joke about an absurd question that reverses their “actual” answer. (Yeah, I might’ve done that once or twice.)

Relationships are complicated things and getting nuance of some issues — like “I don’t care about genre, I care about it being amazingly great” and “I’m not going to commit to wanting children or not until I’ve figured out who my partner is” — into a search engine may also be more useful than just clicking on bubbles and then taking a number. Of course, some problematic questions are still going to not get answers, nuance or not. For example: Do you smell like rancid meat after having sex?

But even when we do get answers, we know that guys generally claim to be about 2 inches taller than they are and claim to make 20% more money than they do while women size down by about 8 pounds. And this poses a problem: do we expect that we’re being lied to and adjust our expectations accordingly, or expect that we’re not being lied to and then be disappointed when faced with the truth? More importantly, knowing the expected amount of untruth, should we lie when filling out our own profiles simply to ensure that we show up in the correct cohort and search results?

These quandaries simply don’t arise when a serendipitously encountered saltwater goddess, shining in the first rays of dawn, is telling you how pretty your eyes are.

And when you are faced with that pricelessly humane moment, you’re supposed to feel some friction in the core of your being.


* Tangent: In case you’re wondering “In the survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics on 6,237 adults between the ages of 20 to 59 from 1999 to 2002, it was found that 29% of men had 15 or more sexual partners, and 9% of women had sex with 15 or more men.” NBC News adds that “women have an average of four sex partners during their lifetime; men have an average of seven.” That relates to another question about whether having 14 different partners sounds average or not.